Niagara Gazette

February 28, 2013

Council majority cutting out meals -- and watching every cent

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A trio of city lawmakers plan to operate as their own "control board" in Niagara Falls and are looking to impose a freeze on the use of city funds for trips, consultants and other "non-essential" items, including their own taxpayer-funded meals. 

Members of the council majority — Chairman Glenn Choolokian, Robert Anderson Jr. and Sam Fruscione — have introduced a resolution authorizing the council to "act as a control board" while imposing a freeze on spending for consultants, engineering studies, training, conferences, travel events, concerts, advertising and all meals, including those involving council members themselves.

The resolution calls upon City Controller Maria Brown to submit monthly expenditure reports to Choolokian and asks that all "requests to move and or spend money" be submitted for council review. The resolution argues that the freeze will prevent the possibility of an "unexpected tax increase mid-year along with layoffs and reduction of essential city services." It is expected to be considered for a council vote on Monday and would take effect immediately upon approval.

The resolution cites the city's ongoing financial problems as the reason behind the move, suggesting the 2013 budget faces a potential structural deficit of about $7 million as a result of anticipated revenues that may not materialize, including $5.3 million in casino cash and 2012 appropriated fund balance. 

On Thursday, Choolokian said the measure is aimed at curtailing as much spending — and thus creating as much savings — as possible at a time when the city is experiencing significant financial challenges, including a lack of cash flow. 

"We're just trying to get an early start on everything and tighten up everybody's belt," he said. 

Last April, city lawmakers, with the administration's approval, adopted a resolution calling for a department-wide freeze on all discretionary spending. 

Mayor Paul Dyster noted that the council and the administration were on the same page in adopting last year's freeze. He believes a "number of issues" exist with the new measure and said he questions whether a majority of council members have the legal authority to "act as a control board" and if the council chairman has the ability to assume oversight of things like budget transfers and spending.

"Does council have the power to do the things they say they are going to do in the resolution? I suspect that they don't and I am researching that," Dyster said. 

When asked for his opinion, Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson referred all questions about the resolution to Choolokian. 

The council chairman said the measure in question is not unlike spending freeze resolutions adopted in previous years, including last year. He said the intent is for the council to work with the mayor and the controller's office on a monthly basis to make sure revenues are being handled appropriately in light of the current budget crunch. 

"I'm hoping that his is a learning lesson for everybody between the administration and the council," Choolokian said. 

Dyster noted that the while the resolution speaks to a potential structural deficit due to the possibility of casino money and other revenues not materializing as expected in 2013, the council — members of the majority included — voted last year to adopt the spending plan that is currently in place. 

"This resolution, it seems to me, is more political than it is practical," Dyster said.

Dyster said his administration has continued to monitor spending closely during the first part of 2013, but maintains that some of the items appearing on the council's "non-essential" list are, in some cases, necessary. He questioned the potential effectiveness of the council's resolution, saying the cost of the items in question combined will not come close to addressing the multi-million dollar budget gap discussed in the council's resolution. 

"There is simply not enough dollars in all of those things to correct the issue cited as the reason for doing this," Dyster said. 

The council has changed the schedule for Monday's meeting. Lawmakers will meet at 4 p.m. to review the agenda. The evening session, traditionally scheduled for 7 p.m., has been changed to 4:30 p.m. to accommodate a "personal" matter involving one of the council members. Both meetings will take place inside council chambers at city hall, 745 Main St.